Ancient Egypt has fascinated the world for centuries; its long standing history is testament to the power and strength of the Empire and accomplished many remarkable achievements. Ancient Egyptian religion gave birth to a vast array of deities, including the first monotheistic faith under the Pharaoh Akhenaton.
The gods in the Egyptian pantheon reflected the lives of the ancient people; as a crop farming people many of the myths were inspired by the river Nile and the dependence on it to survive. In the early stages of this great civilization, each major city state had their own gods. When Egypt was eventually united under one pharaoh, many of the local gods were admitted into the national pantheon.
The goddess Hathor is still one of the most recognised deities from Ancient Egypt. She was the daughter of the sun god, Ra (also spelt Re), and worshipped as the goddess of joy, love, dance and song as well as being the protector of mothers and children. In addition, she was believed to carry the dead to the underworld where she would refresh them by offering them food and drink from the sycamore tree. As the Divine Cow, Hathor embodied the sky and was themediating figure between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Hathor was connected with The Eye of Ra, which is one of her most famous myths. Long before Egypt had human rulers, the god Ra ruled the land. Near the end of his rule, Ra became angry with the lack of respect that his subjects offered him. At first he sent a wave of scorching heat, but the humans found shelter in the rocks, thus escaping his fury. Frustrated, he asked the other gods for advice on what to do next. The other gods suggested that he sent his Eye in the form of Hathor-Sekhmet.
Taking the form of a lioness, Hathor-Sekhmet relentlessly pursued the humans, killing whoever she could find. By the time Ra recalled her, Hathor-Sekhmet had acquired the taste for blood and was determined to destroy the rest of mankind.
On seeing this, Ra became alarmed. He had only wanted to teach his subjects a lesson, not to utterly destroy them. While Hathor-Sekhmet rested in the shade, Ra ordered the Priest of Heliopolis to ground a consignment of local red ochre and then mix it with barley beer. When completed, the result was 7,000 jars of what appeared to be blood. Ra then ordered the contents to be emptied over the fields where Hathor-Sekhmet planned her destruction the next day.
Hathor-Sekhmet was fooled. The next morning she saw a field of what looked to her, blood. She drank her fill, became intoxicated and fell into a stupor. When she awoke, she regain her senses; remembering what her original intentions were, she set off for home again and returned to being an benevolent goddess once more. As a gesture of good faith, Ra decreed that the Egyptian people could drink as much as they liked at Hathor’s festivals.
From this myth, we can see the dual nature of Hathor. She was both fierce and gracious, destructive and benevolent, and this can be seen in columns and amulets, and occasionally in reliefs, when two or even four faces of the goddess were depicted.
In art, Hathor’s benevolent nature is shown usually in the form of a cow, as this was the shape in which the goddess fashioned when she nursed the infant Horus when he was hidden from his murderous uncle Seth, in the marshes of Chemmis. At Deir el Bahari a magnificent statue of the Hathor cow was found intact in a rock shrine.
In addition to this, the goddess could be depicted as a beautiful young woman wearing a sun-disc with horns on her head. The two forms could also be combined – there are many instances where Hathor was shown as a beautiful young woman with the ears of a cow. There are very few occurrences where the goddess was shown in full human form.
The numerous aspects of Hathor were reflected in her worship and the offerings made to her. Large amounts of beads, scarabs and amulets made from the glazed composition known as Egyptian faience have been found at Deir el Bahari. Since one of Hathor’s many titles is ‘Lady of Turquoise’ it is possible that these objects were offered to her in the hope that they would please the goddess.
Also dedicated to Hathor were sistra, a musical instrument. Sistrawere used in the worship of several goddesses, but particularly associated with Hathor. With these, Hathor, in the form of a cow-eared face, formed the base of the loop on each side.
Although an ancient goddess, known from the pre-dynastic period, Hathor’s worship became more prominent from the Middle Kingdom period onwards (c.2134 – 2040 BCE). Our first textual reference to the goddess comes from an inscription on either side of the valley temple of Khafre, where the king is said to be beloved of Bastet (on the north side) and beloved of Hathor (on the south side).
With the reign of Menkaure (c.2532 – 2504 BCE), Hathor and her cult rose to prominence, with the king founding the priesthood of Hathor at Tehneh. A number of cylinder seals describe Menkaure as ‘beloved of’ and ‘one who worships’ Hathor. There are numbers of these during the reign of Khafre, but the quantity is much higher under the earlier pharaoh.
Hathor is one of the most fascinating and complex deities in the Egyptian pantheon; her worship was highly regarded during antiquity and her myths and legends still have the power to enthral and entertain us in today’s society.
Gillam, Robyn A. (1995) Priestesses of Hathor: Their Function, Decline and Disappearance, Journal of the American Research Centre in Egypt, American Research Centre in Egypt.
Pinch, Geraldine (1982) Offerings to Hathor, Folklore, Taylor & Francis on behalf of Folklore Enterprises Ltd.